Census data: Area’s poverty rate exceeds nation’s

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The percentage of area residents who have lived below the poverty level in the past 12 months exceeds the national rate, though it’s generally level with the state’s, according to data recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau.

In all cases–for New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties as well as statewide and nationally—the highest individual rates were among children under the age of 18.

Results from the American Community Survey, a Census Bureau product of various area-by-area statistics, show 16.8 percent of New Hanover County—more than 33,000 residents—fell under the poverty level. The statistics were based on surveys conducted between 2009 and 2011.

In Brunswick County, the rate was 17 percent, encompassing 18,200 residents.

Pender County came in at 17.1 percent, representing more than 8,700 people.

The national rate was 15.2 percent; for the state, 17.2.

While some individual counties showed slight improvements—New Hanover’s figure, for instance, is roughly 1 percentage point better than its 2010 figure—officials at the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center say the numbers generally show stagnation or a worsening, the topic itself so massive and broad it’s difficult to find a starting point for the conversation.

“Poverty is growing and, unfortunately, those who probably never saw themselves facing economic struggles are now facing it,” said Yolanda Burwell, a senior fellow at the Rural Center. The private nonprofit serves 85 counties in the state, including Brunswick and Pender.

Though perking in areas, the economy continues to lag, making progress difficult for individuals wanting to climb up from their conditions. “I think poverty, it’s lasting longer for a lot of people,” Burwell said. “Even when people were out of jobs, the turnaround for finding new jobs used to be better.”

With the highest individual poverty rates being among children under the age of 18, the issue is growing increasingly acute, said Dr. Rajni Shankar-Brown, an assistant professor with the Watson College of Education at UNCW. Her areas of expertise include poverty’s impact on youths and their education.

“Family poverty and family homelessness is rising all over the nation, and we’re seeing it here,” Shankar-Brown said.

In New Hanover County, 10.5 percent of all families fell under the poverty level. For households led by a female, with no husband present, the rate was 34 percent.

The county’s poverty rate among children under the age of 18 was nearly 23 percent.

“The sad part is children are one of the most growing forces among the homeless population,” said Shankar-Brown. “It’s very serious and has so many different implications.”

For one, children who experience the realities of poverty at home bring that baggage with them to school. After classes end, these children aren’t always afforded an environment conducive to homework, which can mean penalties at school for missed assignments or low grades.

“At the same time, we have to keep expectations high at school in hopes that they do break out of poverty,” Shankar-Brown noted. She added, “Research has shown over time that children definitely suffer from the effects of poverty” mentally and physically; it can affect development and general health.

Experts also pointed out that some families in poverty frequently relocate, making consistent learning difficult to impossible for children as they shift from school to school.

Discussions about solutions have countless possible starting points, Burwell said. “It’s not one thing. There are so many pieces that are involved when we begin to talk about poverty.”

She said she views North Carolinians as anything but lazy–they just need opportunity. “North Carolina is a state with strong, hardworking people who contribute a lot.”

But for some parts of the state, the issue is chronic.

When the state released unemployment numbers for August, the highest rate-holder was again Scotland County with 17.2 percent. Robeson County posted 13.6 percent. Historically those counties are among what the Rural Center calls “concentrations of poverty” in North Carolina.

The Census Bureau’s latest figures show 29.3 percent of Scotland County’s populace is below the poverty level; in Robeson County, 30.8 percent. Both counties’ rates among children were higher than 40 percent.

County unemployment figures for September will surface Nov. 2. The report for August showed slight improvements for 72 of the state’s 1oo counties. New Hanover County logged a 9.2 percent jobless rate, compared to 9.4 percent in July. During the same time in 2011, the rate was 10.3 percent.

Contact Ben Brown at ben.b@hometownwilmington.com or (910) 772-6335. On Twitter: @benbrownmedia